New York High School Helps Immigrant 'Kids' Adapt High school is tough for almost every kid, but for new immigrants and refugees, it can be even harder. In The New Kids, journalist Brooke Hauser chronicles the lives of students enrolled in Brooklyn's International High School.

New York High School Helps Immigrant 'Kids' Adapt

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Where you sit in the high school cafeteria can be a tortuous exercise. But imagine for a moment a school where the self-selected segregation expands to a global level, a high school cafeteria with kids of every color who speak dozens of languages, teenagers just learning English because all of them just arrived, kids who walked across deserts, fled wars and persecution, kids whose education was interrupted by a couple of years in a refugee camp or kids who never went to school at all.

In a new book, Brooke Hauser tells of one kid who didn't eat lunch his first six months at the International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn because he couldn't find the cafeteria.

If you were an immigrant student in the United States, tell us about your immersion in American culture, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the mind behind "Moneyball," Bill James joins us to review the brand new Brad Pitt baseball movie. But first, Brooke Hauser joins us from our bureau in New York. She spent a year immersed herself to write "The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens." And nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

BROOKE HAUSER: Good afternoon.

CONAN: And tell us, if you would, a little bit more about the geography of the cafeteria.

HAUSER: Well, there are students at the school who come from more than 45 countries and speak more than 28 languages. And basically if you walk into the cafeteria, you see groups of students who sit at different tables. There aren't the typical cliques of mean girls and jocks, but you might see a table of baseball players from the Dominican Republic, and near them you would see a bunch of girls from West Africa, and near them you would see several Chinese tables, and far away from the Chinese tables you would see a table of former nomadic yak herders from Tibet and a few farmers - former farmers among them, too.

So really the whole world is in this cafeteria. They're just 16, 17, 18, 19 years old.

CONAN: And the Tibetans have to be a fair amount of distance from the Chinese to avoid friction.

HAUSER: Yeah, I mean certainly there were students - there was a lot of dating between some Chinese and Tibetan students, but there was also friction among others. There was a Tibetan club flyer that was passed out one day that the Chinese students defaced and said for people not to go to the Tibetan club but to come to the Chinese club first because Tibet is inside of China.

So there are the occasional problems like that.

CONAN: And it was interesting, you noted there are those who don't fit anywhere. I guess there are nerds everywhere.


HAUSER: Nerds and outcasts. One of my favorite, he was at once an outcast and friends with everybody. His name was Freeman(ph), but he went by the name Pollo Frito(ph), and he was a kid from Togo who made friends with all the Dominican kids and really with everybody, but he didn't fit into any one group.

CONAN: And as you then have to navigate - it's hard enough for most of us to get through high school, but to add the difficulties of learning a new language, and all of these kids have to learn a new language.

HAUSER: All of them. And it's interesting because when I grew up in Miami and went to high school in Miami, they called the program ESL, English as a second language. But at this school, the term is now ELL, English language learners. And for many of these kids, English is their second, third, fourth, even fifth language, depending on what country they're coming from.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from those of you in the audience who have had the experience of arriving in this country as an immigrant teen and what your passage through the membrane of American society was like. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, And Howie's(ph) on the line, Howie with us from St. Louis. Hello, Howie, are you there? I guess Howie's left us. We thank him for the call.

It's interesting, Brooke Hauser, as you hear the stories of these kids, everybody - the arrival here, some of them are simply astonishing. The Tibetan kid who got across the border locked in a suitcase.

HAUSER: Yeah, a boy named Niwong(ph). He wrote - I learned a lot about the kids by reading their college essays, and he wrote an essay about the time he spent 24 hours in a suitcase. He was escaping Tibet and traveling to the border of Nepal, and he fit himself into a small suitcase that was stacked in the backseat of a car that was headed to the border.

And all of this was advised by an oracle that he had heard from in Lhasa. And it was very long, difficult journey that eventually got him to Dharamsala, India, and then he rejoined his father in New York. But his story is amazing, but really it's one of many, many amazing stories at this high school.

CONAN: And some are heartbreaking. There's a Chinese girl who arrives in this country expecting to live with her father, who moved here years earlier, and is - finds herself on her own. She's utterly rejected by her family.

HAUSER: Yeah, that's Jessica(ph), and she did come here with the promise that she would live with her father in Brooklyn. And when she got to his apartment - first of all, it had been years since they had seen each other, and he had remarried and had two little boys with his new wife. And really it was the stepmother who did not want Jessica to live with them.

And it's very complicated. The father is not a bad man. He's a complex character himself. And in the end, Jessica was forced to leave the apartment during her very first week in America. And when I met her, she was living alone in a small room that she rented from a Malaysian woman in Chinatown.

But her father came almost every single day to make her elaborate Hunanese-style feasts, I mean really, really elaborate dinners, and I got to have a few of them with her. But he always left before she sat down to eat.

CONAN: And as different as these kids are from what you'd think of as typical American teenagers, you wrote - I was wondering if I could ask you to read a short passage from your book in which you describe some of the ways in which they are typical American teenagers.

HAUSER: Sure, this is a scene with a teacher named Ann(ph), and it's talking about some of the seniors in one of her classes.

When she looks at Genesis(ph) twirling her ponytail, she remembers what it felt like to want to be wanted. When she looks at Marco(ph), slinking into class with his long, inky black hair askew from sleeping late again, she remembers what it felt like to hate authority and being told what to do. I remember all those feelings of resentment. I see that in my students, and I think: Ooh, they're just a ball of hormones. They're going through growing pains. They're finding themselves. Underneath all of these cultures and ethnicities, there's this sameness which is startling, Ann says. A teenager is a teenager.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. Jasi's(ph) calling us from Oklahoma City.

JASI: How are you doing, Neal and Ms. Brooke, first-time caller, long-time listener. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

HAUSER: Thank you.

JASI: Yes, I was telling your screener that I came to the States here in 1979, right after the Iranian revolution. It was a very tumultuous time at that time, literally being thrown into the school system and not knowing anything as far as the English language but having to learn it within two or three months.

One of the unfortunate things was that my family had to move. I had moved four school years in a row into four different school systems. Nonetheless, I was not able to make any friends at that time. And being an Iranian-American at that time, during the hostage crisis, was not necessarily the most favorable situation to have, especially here in Oklahoma.

But over the years, learning the language to the best of my ability, later on going to the university and joining the U.S. military, I just retired from it about a year and a half ago, it's been a heck of a ride. But I have to say that this is my country, and Iran is my second country.

And it's been a rough ride, but overall, the outcome has been really good - one reason I wasn't able to have these opportunities that the States has offered here back home.

CONAN: That's an interesting point, Jasi, because Brooke Hauser, one of the things you talk about consistently in the book is that these kids arrive and, from your description of them, they will enrich our society tremendously. They're wonderful, smart people. Yes, they've had traumatic childhoods and terrible experiences, but boy, they're interesting folks.

HAUSER: They're great. I loved every minute that I spent at this high school, and I was invited back to give the commencement speech for the most recent graduating class of 2011, and it was so much fun. And I told the kids that the high school is one of my favorite places on Earth, and it really is.

I mean, it's a wonderful thing to walk down the hallways of a high school, which is really - you know, there are stink bombs, and, you know, it's gross, you know, after lunch and all the typical things in high school. But to see the whole world reflected in the faces of teenagers is a really cool thing. I mean, I just loved spending time there, and the kids are amazing.

CONAN: Jasi, do you go back to your high school?

JASI: Actually, I went to the 10th and the 20th year high school reunions, yes. That was interesting. I graduated from the university here in Oklahoma, and I do still keep in touch with some of my friends. To be honest with you, Ms. Brooke, one of my best friends to this day was one of the guys that I met 32 years ago when I came here to the States, and to this day, we're still friends.

And we graduated high school and college together. And so yeah, as a matter of fact, I also keep in touch with a couple of my high school students - or excuse me, high school instructors, to this day.

HAUSER: That's great.

JASI: It's been a really fun ride now, looking back at it. But at the very beginning, naturally, it was a very difficult transition. But we all make it eventually. As you know, you know, high school students, children altogether, we got a pretty thick skin, especially if you're a foreigner or international student. You make a habit of surviving regardless of the odds.


CONAN: Surviving, thanks very much, Jasi, for the phone call, appreciate it.

JASI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: That surviving comment, I think that hit home.

HAUSER: Yes, definitely. And I think the kids have an easier time at an international high school like this than they would a more mainstream public school because everybody's in the same boat. They're all new to the country. To qualify to get into the school, you have to have been in the country for fewer than four years. And you also have to be learning English. So I think that there's less teasing and taunting that happens at this school than at others.

CONAN: We're talking with Brooke Hauser. He book is titled "The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens." If you were an immigrant student in the United States, tell us about your immersion in American culture, 800-989-8255 is the telephone number. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with Brooke Hauser about her book "The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens." She begins the book by explaining that every student at Brooklyn's International High School shows up for their first day wearing the outfit, a special set of clothes bought especially for that first day of school in America.

And while some kids eventually learn to blend in with jeans and sneakers, the new students almost always stand out. You can read more about one student's first day at the school in an excerpt at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you were an immigrant student in the United States, tell us about your immersion in American culture, 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at And click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's get a caller in. This is Debbie(ph), and Debbie's on the line from Sacramento.

DEBBIE: Hello.

CONAN: Hello, Debbie.

DEBBIE: Well, my little story is that my parents and I immigrated to America, to California, when I was 16. So I finished off high school in Oakdale, a little town outside of Modesto, near Sacramento, California. It was in the middle of winter here, in February, which is summer in Australian outback, mind you. So I was wearing turtlenecks and jackets and jumpers, you know, sweaters in 80 degree weather because I was freezing here in the 80 degree weather from the outback.

But my greatest difficulty, I think, was the, you know, speaking the Queen's English in the Yankee environment. No one understood anything I was saying. So I would have to end up filling out all those forms myself because spelling my name, back then it was Nitilia, so I had, like, I don't know, six vowels. And all my vowels were misunderstood.

So I would spell - like let me try my Aussie accent. N-I-T-I-L-I-A. So all the A's sounded like I's, and all the I's sounded like Y's, and so nothing I said or tried to spell made sense, because none of the vowels came across in the American ear. And that was really frustrating.

And around the quad, kids would gather, not my friends (unintelligible) liked me, but they loved the Aussie accent from the Outback with all the slang and stuff. And I'd hear kids standing and say: What is she saying? I don't know, but don't you love her accent? You know, so it was really, really funny.

But then - and then in the yearbook...

CONAN: It's funny now, but no kid likes to stand out.

DEBBIE: Oh, I was so depressed. I had a 10-year identity crisis that went through my entire college life. I didn't know who or what I was. I'd have dreams of being in one country and late for a test in the country, and how do I get there. And in my yearbook at high school, I said I really am glad I, you know, survived the initiation into American society through high school, because it's like a mini-culture of American society all right there in the high school. And that to me was fascinating, comparing the two former colonies of, you know, of the Queen's - you know, England, and how they became so different.

So I did a lot of comparing and contrasting for years and years. And so I could talk on and on about what my conclusions were on why they became so different. And anyway, the editorial staff changed initiation, which is kind of derogatory, because it really was difficult, into invitation. So they made it sound much sweeter and more welcoming than it really actually was.

CONAN: Debbie, it sounds like you've acculturated in the years since.

DEBBIE: Oh, they all think I'm from New England and New Jersey now.


CONAN: No, you're not from Jersey.

DEBBIE: And the Bostonians think I'm from Boston because I sound like I'm from New England.

CONAN: Thanks very much, appreciate the phone call. Joining us now is Dariana Castro(ph), coordinator of special programs at International High school at Prospect Heights. She's also known as the fixer and helps manage the needs of students and teachers. She's also with us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

DARIANA CASTRO: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And students with - I don't mean to diminish the experience at all - but have problems a little more complicated than their vowels.

CASTRO: Yeah, one can say that, yes.

CONAN: There are so many different situations that arise at this school, including the ways that kids get to this school in the first place.

CASTRO: Yes, I think that our students definitely take different paths to get to our school, that seem a little bit more complicated than just getting on the train or getting on the bus.

CONAN: Though that, in itself, can be a problem.

CASTRO: Though that, in itself, can be a problem. We actually - I do recruitment at our school, and in order to get students from the middle schools to our school for the first, I actually send people over to the middle schools to pick up groups of lost eighth graders to get on the train, and we show them how to get on the Q Train, how to transfer to the bus and eventually, you know, step onto the footsteps - onto the steps of the school.

CONAN: So though the students are - your school is in Brooklyn, your kids are from all over the city?

CASTRO: Predominately from Brooklyn. We are in a really great location, right next to the Brooklyn Museum, and so we're able to get students from all over different, I guess, ethnic enclaves in Brooklyn.

CONAN: And it was interesting, Brooke Hauser, I did now know there were five of these schools in New York City.

HAUSER: There's more than five. Actually, this high school is called the International High School at Prospect Heights, and there's another international school in Brooklyn that's called the Brooklyn International High School. So it's a little confusing.

But I think - so these two schools belong to a larger network that's called the International Network for Public Schools, and they now oversee more than a dozen schools. Most of those are in New York City, but a couple are in California.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation, Adonis(ph), Adonis with us - is from Palo Alto.

ADONIS: Yeah, how are you doing, guys?

CONAN: Very good, thanks.



ADONIS: So I just listened to the program, I said I've got to call in. My experience was very interesting and great. I would repeat it, I guess I'd say. I came in 1989. I was 13 years old, from Greece, and ended up in Philadelphia in Cedarbrook Middle School, and I want to shout out to Mrs. Booth(ph). She was my ESL teacher, and she was fantastic.

And I think part of the ease with which I was able to acclimate to the language and to the school was due to our great teachers. And that's very important. But there's other things, too. For example, everyone at ESL was foreign. So it was easy to get along with everybody else in there, you know. And you felt sort of separated from the rest of the school.

So it was easy to sort of start getting into the rhythm of things. Once we moved out of ESL, then, you know, it was easier to see some of the cliques and so on and so forth, that you normally see in modern high schools, I guess, in the United States.

Another interesting fact was that we had a lot more commonalities with a lot of the people from Eastern countries. I was surprised, as a European, to find that there were a lot more commonalities between the Asians and us. I can't necessarily put specifics on the table, but something like, you know, respect for the elders and stuff like that that was a clear divide between how the American kids treated some of their teachers while, you know, how some of the Asian kids would treat some of the teachers. And that was a binding kind of experience, as well.

CONAN: A little bit more familiarity from the Americans and a little more reverence from the...?

ADONIS: Yeah, maybe that, maybe - I don't - economics, how you - I can't put it to words, I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's OK.

ADONIS: But there was a clear difference, like oh, I'm much more like the Asians than I am the Americans, even though we're both - I was white, you know, whatever, European. That felt strange. I didn't believe I could have more relationship with the Asian people than I did with Americans. But that's how it felt a lot.

CONAN: And I - everybody gets picked on for something, but it must have been a particular form of hell to go through an American high school with your first name being Adonis.

ADONIS: Luckily no, Neal, and I'm sorry to say this, but everybody here has to wake up. The big difference coming from, especially Europe, was how, you know, the science and math programs were way back. I had already done geometry when I came, and they didn't have it in my middle school. So I had to end up retaking algebra or whatever the highest level was.

So unfortunately, a lot of people weren't - or a lot of the kids weren't educated, especially in geography and math and science. And so, even, for example, the other great thing about the American schools were the libraries. The library was my haven. There were magazines and books on everything. We didn't have anything like that back home.

So the problem is they were devoid of natives, of Americans, well, Native Americans and Americans, and I think that's part of the reason why they didn't know about Adonis. Now, later on in life, it became a problem.

CONAN: Later in life it became a problem, OK, but - you can thank the paucity of the American school system for letting you survive on the playground.

ADONIS: We have to wake up, especially now with the elections coming up in a year. I mean, I know it's a big contentious issue, but education - whoever - I mean, to everyone who's listening out there, whoever is going to go run for the government of the United States and doesn't have education as primary in their, you know, list of goals, we shouldn't vote for that person. It's really, really important.

And, I mean, I could see the continuity from school to, you know, I ended up doing computers and computer science. I can see the continuity with the kids who have been to math and science, and most of them were the foreigners, you know, that would go into the computer labs, that would go into the math and science classes, and eventually they would get into the degrees and the universities who - you know, which would be the math and science degrees.

And now they ended up all in the Silicon Valley, that's where I'm calling from, and it's something that we all have to wake up and see. It's going to be very, very critical in the next decades.

CONAN: Thanks very much, appreciate the phone call. And Dariana Castro, I wonder, what he was talking about is the curious affinity between people from very different parts of the world. Do you get that experience at your school?

CASTRO: Yes, we definitely do. I think that a lot of our students find that they end up having very close relationships with students from other - from countries that they had sometimes never heard of before. We have kids representing 50 different countries at this point, or maybe there're more than that. But our focus at our school is group work, and so all of our students sit around a table of four and they speak to, you know - one Chinese kid once told me, I had never touched a black person's hand before, before I came to this school.

And it was on a school trip when they went ice skating, and they had no other choice but to hold each other because most of our kids have never been ice skating in their lives, even if they came from countries where there were brutal winters. They had never have been ice skating anyway. And so we, you know, there are relationships had develop. We also have (unintelligible) dates, of course. We have the Senegalese kid and the beautiful Polish girl that developed an incredible relationship over time.

And, you know, we also have really longtime friendships, such as the one in the book, where Yasmeen and Jessica - Yasmeen being a girl, a very traditional Yemeni girl and Jessica being from China. And they shared this journal that Brooke speaks of in her book. And they are still very close friends coming from completely different parts of the world.

CONAN: And, Brooke Hauser, you write - and Yasmeen, more to the point, writes about her concerns over - does she want to become the first woman in her family to go to college? Or does she want to work with her family and her friends and get a husband as so many young Yemeni girls do?

HAUSER: Well, I think her priority for a long time was going to college, and then around the time of the beginning of her senior year, both of her parents died. It was horrible. And she was left in a position where she had to make a choice, and her new priority became her two younger siblings who needed to be taken care of. So, yeah, about halfway through her senior year, she became engaged to her first cousin and eventually married him. And as far as I know - we've lost touch a little bit. Actually, we just emailed a couple of days ago, but she is going to college now. And she's earning an associate degree in college. So she's doing well, but she did have to make a compromise and I hope that it's worked out for her.

CONAN: Brooke Hauser's book is "The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens." Also with us, Dariana Castro, coordinator of special programs at International High School in Prospect Heights. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. This email from Christina in Merced in California: Longtime listener - I love today's topic. I came to this country from Mexico in 1968 and attended Memorial Junior High in San Diego. I did well and went on to get a college degree. However, during my college admission interview, I became aware that I was labeled MR, mentally retarded, in my ninth grade school transcript. Apparently, it was the practice at the time to label non-English speakers MR. This was before ESL, English as a second language. Let's see if we go next to Rachel, Rachel with us from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

RACHEL: Yes, thank you. As I listen to all of these really nice-ending stories, people might be surprised to know that such a small state and city - we have a very, very large refugee population here. And the stories are very different of kids in the classroom and children coming from countries that were at war with each other and children coming here with traumatic stories of soldiers killing their parents in front of them. And I think a lot of people are not - I mean, here, we are dealing, I'm a substitute in ELO, and we are dealing with kids who have to learn to trust each other again.

Many Iraqis were taught not to trust each other, because after the war things got so bad. I've had Iraqi adolescents talk to me about, you know, I don't know that I'm happy to be here. This is the same place that dropped a bomb on my house and killed my mom. I mean, and then to hear 5 year olds talk about escape from their countries in Africa and I think there's another component of kids that are immigrants, and that's coming here through traumatic situations and how do we help them through these traumas?

And these kids rarely find things in common with each other because they don't know - so many of them are put in the same classroom from different countries that have been at war with each other for years. And so I think it's something really important - I know for me, I'm working so hard on programming so that we can try and teach children to trust again. And...

CONAN: Excuse me, if we left the impression that this is all - every ending is a happy ending and all the stories work out for the best, I apologize. That's probably my mistake. Brooke Hauser, all the stories are not happy stories. Indeed, there are a lot of traumas, and all the endings are not happy.

HAUSER: That's true.

CASTRO: Absolutely, not all.

HAUSER: No, I think that kids coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, that's a totally different situation. And as far as I know, there are no students at the high school now, Dariana?

CASTRO: No, not from those particular countries. But we definitely do experience a lot of that, and we definitely do get a lot of students that do tell us about very difficult experiences crossing the border. I mean, we don't even have to go that far. A Mexican student crossing the border might have - maybe been raped on their way, might have been - might have left people behind to die in the desert. And these are things that at our school we approach through a very comprehensive guidance program. We don't - we try not to focus on the bad, of course, but these things do come up, definitely. I think we just - we do a lot of counseling at the school, and we are very aware that these things do exist. And we just try to focus on the fact that they are here now and that we can get them a happier ending if we can just focus on the future and focus on getting into college and getting all the good work on it.

RACHEL: Except for that children need to be able, as we all do, to relive trauma and talk about it before they can move on to that place. And just - excuse me, very quickly...

CONAN: Very quickly, please.

RACHEL: ...most of my life working with children and adolescents in health care environments, and just a really quick thing about - I actually did research on adolescents at - from different countries, bicultural adolescents and end-of-life care because there's always this sense of wanting to go back home.

CONAN: Rachel, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it. Our thanks as well to Dariana Castro at the International High School in Prospect Heights, and Brooke Hauser, whose new book is called "The New Kids." Thanks very much for your time today. Coming up next, we'll be talking with the man who animated the idea behind the new movie "Moneyball." This is NPR News.

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